The Hard Stop: The London Riots documentary that we can't ignore

Heading to conduct interviews with the filmmakers and protagonists of the documentary, our writer was the subject of a stop and search

Kaleem Aftab
Thursday 21 July 2016 18:53
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A scene from The Hard Stop
A scene from The Hard Stop

The Hard Stop examines the events that led up to and followed the death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police in London in 2011 precipitated widespread rioting in England. The documentary, directed by George Amponsah, takes a look at the history of Broadwater Farm, the Tottenham estate where Duggan grew up. The estate became infamous in 1985 after resident Cynthia Jarrett died of a heart attack while police searched her house; riots followed in which a police office, Keith Blakelock, was killed.

The film deals with a plethora of issues relating to the policing of black men, including the powers of stop and search. Heading back to London from Europe to conduct interviews with the filmmakers and some of the protagonists seen in the documentary, I found it somewhat pertinent that I was the subject of a stop and search.

Switching trains at Rotterdam Central, a policeman asked to look inside my suit bag. There are very real reasons why this happens – one only has to look at the appalling axe attack in Germany - but it’s interesting how both myself and the policeman immediately went on the defensive when challenged. My initial remark –“Seriously?” – was followed by his more threatening, “Don’t give me trouble”. I then asked for his police number and how the stop would be recorded, making sure to do so politely. He called over another policeman, as a witness, who could back up his claim of searching me by the book and told me that I was not the victim of discrimination.

It was then that I couldn’t help myself and mentioned growing up in London in the 1980s, how the police would always state when stopping black people that it wasn’t discrimination until it was proved that it was, and terms such as “institutional racism” were coined. It was all done in an amicable fashion and the conversation ended with handshakes; the policeman even took out his phone to show me a photo of his black mother.

But Mark Duggan was not given a chance to explain himself. He was subject to the “hard stop”, a procedure by which three police cars force a suspect’s car to come to a halt by surrounding it from the front, back and the roadside. The idea is to psychologically dominate the suspect, so that they can’t move, or draw their weapons. Except in the case of Duggan, despite the fact that he was not carrying a weapon, he was shot dead by a policeman.

The title of George Amponsah’s film also seems to refer to the hard stop put on Mark Duggan’s life. Yet the director is also keen to show the positive as well as the negative as he focuses on the lives of two of Duggan’s childhood friends, Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville. The film starts with the men explaining how they grew up hating the police, and through the course of the film, we can see how growing up on Broadwater Farm affected their decision-making.

Knox-Hooke was involved in the London riots and was sentenced to 32 months for violent disorder and burglary. The film shows his attempts to rebuild his life since his release, as well as Henville struggling to get a job and bring up his young family. Henville explains how he’s making the choice to forgo the chance to make an easy £500 a day in order to go straight.

Amponsah battled to get the trust of the two men, who provide a remarkable inside look at life on Broadwater Farm. He first approached Knox-Hooke. “I went to where he was working at the time, at Hammersmith Hospital, just to talk and we went from there. It was a process of building trust,” he says.

Knox-Hooke took some convincing as he had some of his own stereotypes to banish when he met Amponsah. “He turned up with a rucksack and on a push bike and I’m thinking ‘that is no director‘,” Knox-Hooke says. “Initially I wanted him to do a movie, but he says he doesn’t do movies, he specialises in observational documentaries.” Amponsah’s previous credits include a film about African fans watching the 2010 World Cup in London, Diaspora Calling, and The Fighting Spirit, a documentary on a village in Ghana, so it’s unsurprising that Knox-Hooke had not heard of the director.

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Also included in the new film is the inquiry and reaction to the inquiry held on the circumstances of Duggan’s death, where a jury was to rule whether or not he was unlawfully killed.

Jude Lanchin, of Bindman’s solicitors, who represents Knox-Hooke says: “The verdict was a total shock – it’s not because we are not all cynical, but because the way that the inquest went was so optimum, that we thought that the minimum that we would got was an open verdict. The way the decision came as well – the jury said that Mark did not have the gun, so everybody who sat in the inquest thought that the next decision would be an open verdict, but it was lawful killing.” (In March next year, there will be an appeal made to the Supreme Court, which will look into the directions make to the jury, and the process of the hearing.)

Lanchin adds: “In terms of the stop and search, I don’t think anything has changed in regards to the experience of young black men on the streets.”

Indeed, many believe the situation to be getting worse. The film arrives on our cinema screens at a time where the Black Lives Matter movement, which started in the US in 2012 to tackle “the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society”, is setting up marches in the UK. The marches are popular because many Brits believe that we suffer from many of the same problems.

Amponsah says there is a lack of leaders in the United Kingdom championing the black cause: “We screened the film in Parliament, and David Lammy MP was hosting the screening, but he soon disappeared. We appreciated that he hosted the screening, but no MPs came to it. We know that they are a bit busy in the moment, but even so, we want to show the film in Parliament for the same reason we want to show it to police officers – we don’t just want to preach to the converted.”

He believes that the aftermath of Duggan’s death links in with the aims of the movement. “It definitely connects to Black Lives Matter; there is such a parallel with those stories, it’s frightening. When we exam it, we British people like to think that we are not as bad as America. When you boil it down, police are representative of the society that they serve, and I think we would have the same things happening on the same scale as America if we had an armed police force and the same gun culture. That’s the only difference between Britain and America.”

He adds: “I don’t know how many marches for civil rights and Black Lives Matter there are, and nothing is being done about it [the murder of people by police]. America is a crazy place, we are talking about a country where schoolchildren can be killed by some nutter and they still don’t want to look at their gun laws.”

Amponsah says attitudes towards integration in the UK are perhaps as bad as they have ever been. “I have problems with Tony Blair and the idea of multiculturalism that was fostered at the time, with all the talk of us living in a post-racial society,” he says. “It actually made me think that we were better off under Margaret Thatcher, when there was no question that there was racism and certain divisions and black people would live in areas where no one else would want to go. Out of that, at least there was some recognition of the problem.”

‘The Hard Stop’ is on general release

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